How to un-brand an organisation

How do you un-brand a company and provide a nod to its heritage at the same time?

GWRA train operator here in the UK, First Group, has just announced it is readopting the historical name Great Western Railway, which was first used in the 1830s.

My new office is based at Paddington Station in London, and the marvel that is Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s handiwork in building the Great Western Railway (GWR) in the 1830s impresses me every time I’m there.

The station is an imposing, stunning piece of architecture, and the site has been the London terminus of the GWR and its successors since 1838. The network has had various iterations over the years, and has now returned to its roots with the original name, recognising its 182-year heritage.

I’m a bit of a rail geek. I spent four-and-a-half years working in the industry, as Head of Communications at London Overground Rail Operations Ltd, and in a Senior IC Manager role at Tube Lines (now part of Transport for London).

First Great Western becomes Great Western Railway

From unionised workforces to ‘hard to reach’ employees and critical safety messages, the railway is a thriving environment, with plenty of challenges for comms pros to get their teeth into.

It gives me enormous pleasure to advise one of my current clients, Heathrow Express, who are coincidentally based at Paddington (and Heathrow) as I get to spend time with rail employees.

This month I started noticing a new visual identity on my train line and the station (- or signs and posters to remove the jargon!). After doing some investigating, I thought I’d share the thinking behind the “un-branding.”

Who is responsible?

FGW_logosTrain Operator FirstGroup began operating the West of England’s railways in April 2006. The region brings together the former First Great Western, First Great Western Link and Wessex Trains businesses.

That’s still the case, but FirstGroup has made a dramatic shift in the way they communicate, with one foot clearly in the future, but one remaining embedded in the past.

Brunel’s vision revolutionised the West, turning it into a vibrant region with connected communities, open to trade and tourism. It was a vision that made the West great.

Writing on their website, the train operator states: “In September 2015, FirstGroup started the process of ‘un-branding’ the business by changing the company name from First Great Western to Great Western Railway @GWRUK.

“This won’t happen overnight, as going back to the name given to us by our illustrious founder, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, is a huge step that will take time to fully introduce.

It’s more than a rebadging exercise. It’s a complete shift in our ethos as a train operator. It means we no longer behave as a franchisee, but as a custodian – responsible for reinvigorating the west by returning the railway to its former glory. (Tweet this)

What are they trying to achieve?

First Great Western becomes Great Western RailwayThe rebrand is part of a £7.5bn programme, which involves the electrification of tracks, stations being modernised and the introduction of newly liveried trains.

Despite looking back to the past, the company says its aim is to deliver a rail service for the 21st Century.

Sounds good to me! As long as the service matches up to their promises, which judging from this Tweet they sent me today, they’re aware of, I welcome the move. I know from what I’ve read in the industry press that there are some oppositions to the name change, stock (trains) and use of funds.

A Great Western Railway spokesperson said: “We know your railway truly belongs to the region it serves and is more important than any holding company. We’re proud to have the chance to bring back Brunel’s original ideals and take them forward into the 21st Century.”


FirstGroup Chief Executive Tim O’Toole said: “FirstGroup is the proud operator of GWR, a railway steeped in years of GWR logo glasstradition, and our new brand for the franchise represents this strong heritage.”

I like the British racing green and vintage-style font, a nod back to the GWR branding of yesteryear. The rebrand – or un-brand – was overseen by Pentagram’s John Rushton and the work has been called “a renaissance of rail” by Design Week.

What do you think of it? Do Tweet me with your thoughts on this article or to share your own stories @AllthingsIC.

The external side, as we know, is only one part of the story. Best of luck to the comms team and internal communicators involved in the changes. Enjoyed this article? Why not share it on via Twitter.

Post author: Rachel Miller. First published on All Things IC blog 23 September 2015.


  1. Adrian Beeby says:

    Very interesting post, Rachel. Speaking as someone who commutes from Wiltshire to London three days a week, I think their challenge is transforming the daily experience. Right now, the trains are the same, the livery is the same, the staff wear the same FGW uniforms, and the service remains unchanged. I hope they can tap into the magic of Brunel’s railway; I fear they may end up tarnishing its reputation.

  2. Thanks for your comment Adrian. I think you’re right in that’s there’s still work to do, particularly around the daily experience, which it’s clear they are aware of. Am looking forward to seeing it develop over time.

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